Posted on January 19, 2017
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25, NRSV)
Some people call them routines while others call them ruts. Some people call them habits while other people claim their predictable behavior as merely a reflection of their personality. Whatever we call them, those behaviors that we repeat over and over again—often unconsciously—began as a choice that we made. Habits result from the following:
1) There is some cue that prompts you to respond.
2) You respond to the cue in a variety of ways to determine the best response.
3) The way that you respond that yields the greatest reward, either actual or perceived, reinforces your behavioral response so that it may become a habit.
Think of a habit that you have. It could be something positive or negative that you do routinely (i.e., exercising, smoking, etc.) Run it through this framework and see if you can trace the habit back to the original cue.
Routines or habits reduce the number of decisions we have to make, thereby freeing up our thought processes for other tasks. Most of us are oblivious to many of our routines. Consider the number of times you’ve stopped in the middle of the day trying to remember whether or not you put deodorant on earlier that morning? You can’t remember doing it!
Spiritual disciplines may appear to be nothing more than habits. If you have a daily devotional or if you pray with your children or grandchildren before bedtime, although those behaviors seem to be habits because you repeat them with regularity, the consciousness and attentiveness you bring to the task are vital. I would consider these faithful acts as “holy habits.”
The importance of holy habits is that they help retrain our affections so that we desire the things that God desires for us. By consciously attending to personal prayer or Bible study, we discover anew the joy of being in communion with God and learning more about God. We are rewarded with the fullness that comes from being in the presence of God by faithfully attending in worship. If you forgot whether you prayed or not this morning, it’s a habit and not a holy habit or spiritual discipline!
The writer of Hebrews reminds us to, “Encourage one another in the holy habits that help us prepare to live more holy lives—including anything that provokes us to love God and one another more deeply.” (Loosely paraphrased from above!)
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34, NRSV)
For most of us, we think of love as an emotion. We talk about falling in love as if it were an accident. By the same token, when we talk about falling out of love, we describe it as if some unseen force over which we have no control has taken our love for the other. Rather than identifying the series of small choices we made that led to the distancing in our relationship, we would rather play the innocent bystander—the victim of our circumstances.
Jesus reminds us that love is a choice. Certainly our emotions are affected by the choices we make; however, at the end of the day, we choose to love or not to love.
Loving someone can be difficult. It takes time. It can be demanding. It requires that we sacrifice for the one we love. It means that sometimes we put our own wants and desires on the back burner in order for us to address the wants and the desires of the one we love. When we multiply the demands of love across our relationships, it can be overwhelming.
The key is that Jesus commanded us to love one another AS he loves us. In all his loving, Jesus never lost sight of the need to take care of himself. He knew that in order for him to be able to love us, he had to spend time nurturing his love for God and his love for himself. That’s why he chose to withdraw from time to time and spend time with God. It was during that time away (such as the time in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest and crucifixion) when he was able to clarify how best to demonstrate his love for us. Love is a choice but choosing how to love is also important.
In our Choose This Day sermon series, we’re talking about Choosing Love this week. I hope you will join us as we explore in practical ways what it means to choose love as a discipline to guide your life. I believe this is one of the most critical choices we make as it has implications for so many other areas of our life. May God guide us into loving one another as Jesus loves us.
“Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15, paraphrase)
From the moment we awake in the morning to the time we fall asleep at night, our days are filled with choices. Many of our choices have become automatic, and we refer to these choices as habits. A famous football coach stops at the same convenience store every morning and purchases a Coke and a Little Debbie cake for his breakfast. He made a choice once, and since he keeps doing the same thing every day, it’s now a habit.
Other choices are more complicated and require time and energy to make. Buying a car or a house involves more complex planning and decision-making than the majority of decisions we have to make. I remember one of my old seminary professors who was a genius at theology but not as adept at more basic levels of thinking. Frustrated with all the options available when he went to purchase a car, he finally just blurted out, “I want a blue one!”
Probably the most important decisions we make are about the kind of people we will choose to be. As important as this decision is, most people take a more passive approach, falling victim to letting the world shape the internal compass that guides them and missing out on discovering the deeper and more meaningful existence of being an individual.
The best way for our lives to be shaped is through deliberate decision-making about our relationships, our values, and our actions. I choose to be on a conscious journey of self-reflection using the life of Jesus Christ as the standard for decision-making. Each morning I spend time in reflection and study in hopes of identifying ways in which I have met the standard of Jesus Christ and ways I have failed to meet that standard. In line with one of the twelve steps of recovery, I seek “through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, praying only for the knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry that out.” In other words, I choose to serve God.
The new sermon series on “Choose This Day: Four Essential Resolutions” is designed to offer four areas of emphasis that are essential to the thriving life that Jesus offers us. By engaging in these four disciplines, we are confident that we can become the people of God who are not victims of our circumstances, but people who are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus. I hope you will join us each week as we explore choosing Presence, Love, Habits, and Courage.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the wise men] left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12, NRSV)
Some wise men living in a distant land had seen a sign in the heavens that foretold the birth of a new king in the land of Judea. Following the star sign, they journeyed for months, if not years, in search of this promised king. They stopped in Jerusalem at the palace of Herod the Great to see if he knew anything about this new King of the Jews. Being a paranoid man, Herod asked them to report back to him when they found him so he could go and pay homage, too. In reality, Herod would kill him as he did all his enemies- with a fierce vengeance.
With a little guidance from Herod’s religious advisers, it was determined the likely place for this newborn king would be in Bethlehem. Indeed, the wise men found Jesus and his family in Bethlehem as the scriptures foretold. The wise men worshiped Jesus and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In a dream, they were warned not to return to Jerusalem as instructed by Herod, but to go home via an alternative route. They did as the dream directed. Unbeknownst to them, their decision not to return to Herod resulted in the mad king’s ordering of the killing of all baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, thus annihilating any threat to Herod’s rule in the process.
James Taylor, the singer/songwriter for my generation, retold this biblical story in a song on his 1988 album, Never Die Young. The song, “Home by Another Way,” highlights how the addiction to power creates paranoia and greed for the addicted while destroying the possibility of developing healthy relationships. Taylor contrasts this brokenness with the love that one finds at home—a love that always welcomes and comforts. Taylor cautions that our daily exposure to the abuse of power can leave us cynical and jaded unless we “go home by another way.” Rather than following the perspective that says, “Love power and use people,” go home by another way and choose to, “Love people and use power to demonstrate your love.”
In the January sermon series, “Choose This Day: Four Essential Resolutions,” we’re focusing on Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Join us as we explore some holy habits that will change your life and help you go home by another way.
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, NRSV)
Joseph was engaged to Mary. Then it was revealed that she was “with child” and Joseph had to decide how he would respond. None of the options were easy, and most would leave him heart-broken. After weighing the facts and itemizing the options, Joseph decided he would quietly call off the engagement. The words written above from Matthew’s gospel are the words the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. The child that would be born to Mary becoming the Savior of the world was not one of the factors he listed in his previous analysis. If the angel in his dream was truly a messenger of God, then all the conditions and boundaries he had previously considered were moot. Faithfulness to God was more important to Joseph than anything else. The matter was settled. He would continue with his plans to become Mary’s husband and now, the earthly father of the Messiah.
It’s a little misleading to think the eight verses of Matthew 1:18-25 that describe Joseph’s conversion fully contain both the breadth and the depth of what Joseph had to process in coming to his conclusion to move forward with his marriage to Mary. I believe the contents of this passage are true; however, I think it took a lot more emotional wrangling and wrestling for Joseph to come to terms with what was happening between him and Mary. Maybe I’m projecting my own insecurities and skepticism, or maybe I’m justifying my own protracted struggles with matters of faith. Certainly, I’ve never had to face any dilemma that comes anywhere close to that which Joseph was forced to grapple with. Even in my less-than-epic choices of faith that I have been called upon to make, I often need more time and more signs from God than I probably should.
So this Christmas, here’s what I’m hoping to receive. As we celebrate together the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the possibilities that are created by his incarnation, I am wishing for these things:
1) The spirit of a child that views God and the world he made with a sense of curiosity and openness to what more God wants to do in my life,
2) An increased desire to share the experience of living this dynamic life of faith with those around me,
3) And a willingness to learn from both the faith and the doubt of all I meet (requiring me to listen to others without judgment and with an increased curiosity about what makes them tick).
The church has always been the anvil on which the life of faith has been hammered out. Would you be willing to join me in committing to increasing our time together in our community of faith by planning to be in worship, Sunday School, and small group studies more in the coming year? If so, I believe we’ll both experience an energizing and dynamic faith that adds strength and vitality to our walk with Jesus Christ.
“The angel said to [Mary], ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.’” (Luke 1:30-31, NRSV)
In life, we often face moments that are defining moments for us. They are the kind of moments when something happens that completely changes us—the way we think about ourselves as well as the way we view our world. After such a moment, we know that our lives will never be the same again.
The young Mary in Luke’s gospel had one such defining moment in the visitation of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel not only brought the disruptive news of pregnancy for Mary; but the even more disturbing news that her child would be the savior of the world. Try processing that as an unwed teenager! Mary was up for the task as we read later in the text:
“Then Mary said [to the angel Gabriel], ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:38a, NRSV)
Experiences like Mary’s are defining moments and are characterized by three stages. The first stage is the stage of disruption. Disruption is where we are confronted with an event, an idea, or an experience that breaks the routine or the direction we assumed we were going. The second stage is disorientation. Disorientation is the stage where we realize that our lives are never going to be the same; however, we have no idea what the new direction or new reality will be. And the third stage is reorientation. Reorientation is the stage where we get our bearings and begin to move into the new order. We move into the new direction that is coming out of the disruption.
For Mary, the visit of the angel Gabriel and the news of Mary’s selection to give birth to the Messiah represent the disruptive stage. In the first chapter of Luke, you see that Mary quickly moves into the disorientation stage. She begins to question Gabriel about how all of this could be happening to her, given the circumstances of her life. She was anticipating one direction for her life, and the news Gabriel brought left her trying to make sense of the new reality that he foretold. Almost as quickly as she moved into the disorientation stage she moves into the reorientation stage (poetic license, I’m sure!), when she says, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Maybe you’re facing a defining moment in your life—a new marriage, a new baby, a new job, illness, the loss of a loved one, divorce, or even the loss of a dream. As it was with Mary, the disruption may be the avenue in which God can work out great things for you and the world. Be open to life and whatever it brings. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in reorienting your Self because none of us can make it on our own. After all, we’re all in this together.
“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matthew 3:3, NRSV)
John the Baptist is one of the most colorful characters in the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist shows up at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry wearing a cloak of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Matthew was certain that John the Baptist was the one of whom Isaiah spoke in Isaiah 40:3 who would announce the coming of the Messiah. Honestly, if I were picking a front man or someone who was going to introduce a significant leader into the world, it wouldn’t have been John the Baptist! Yet, as is often the case with God, John the Baptist turned out to be the best possible choice. People from Jerusalem, from throughout Judea, and from anywhere near the Jordan River who heard about John, came out to hear him preach.
What was it that was drawing this crowd? If you look at his message (Matthew 3:7-12), you would be hard pressed to conclude that it was his preaching. His preaching was filled with harsh words of critique and judgment. Yet, in the midst of those harsh words was an authentic truth that spoke into the very depths of a people who were searching for meaning in the midst of their struggle. The Roman occupiers of Judea were brutal to those who opposed them. Even if the people of Judea went along with the demands of the Romans, their demands depleted the people of their pride and their possessions. Even the religious establishment was oppressive with their laws and the punishments that were doled out for violations.
John the Baptist’s message was a message of “keeping the faith.” God could be trusted to step in (at some point) and settle the score. The role of the people was to prepare the way for the Messiah to come—whenever God decided the time had drawn nigh. Preparing the way is about preparing our hearts. Where our hearts mirror the brutality of the Romans we must seek peacefulness and gentleness. Where our hearts reflect the judgment of the Pharisees, we must seek forgiveness and grace. I have much preparation to do in my life to prepare the way of Lord. I choose to live this day extending love and mercy.
P.S. For those of you who have yet to complete your pledge for 2017, it would be greatly appreciated if you were able to complete your pledge as soon as possible. I recognize this is a busy time of year and completing your pledge may have been placed on the backburner, but help us out if you can and get your pledge in today. Thank you so much!
“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:3, NRSV)
For many people, Thanksgiving is a time to return to the home of their family of origin. For some, it is an uplifting journey. In the home of their childhood are fond memories of security and comfort. Meals shared at the family table are re-lived with the old stories spontaneously emerging. Isn’t it intriguing how each family member remembers the same story differently? Even in their differences, all the stories are equally true. This is a lesson in perspective.
For others, the journey home brings tension and anxiety. Returning home is a reminder of unmet expectations and unrealized dreams. Instead of replaying warm scenes at the table, the battle lines of old arguments resurface, spoiling any hope of things having changed over time. Sometimes the arguments are arguments about the old arguments and the downward spiral spins out of control. One begins to wonder if things are ever going to change.
Going home can be complicated even under the best of circumstances. A. Bartlett Giamatti (yes, the former Major League Baseball Commissioner and an Ivy League Professor in the Literature of the Renaissance Period) said this:
“Home… remains in the mind as a place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen…. It is about restoration of the right relations among things—and going home is where that restoration occurs, because that is where it matters most.” (Excerpt from Take Time for Paradise)
Going home (whether literally or figuratively) to face both the angels and the demons that await us there is necessary for us to fully “grow up.” Yet, there is a home that is both past and future to which we are called to venture to as well. Isaiah tells us this home is found up on the mountain of the Lord and is the house of the God of Jacob. The God who created us and who knows us better than we know ourselves, beckons us to return to this house to learn the important truths about our origins as God’s beloved. God also beckons us to show us a glimpse of what we can yet become when we learn his ways and walk in his paths. It is both past and future.
In the season of Advent (Sundays, November 27, December 4, 11, and 18), we are exploring, “When All Heaven Breaks Loose” as a way of envisioning the world as God would have it. In the person of Jesus Christ, God is breaking into our world offering hope for the future. Join us as we visit the future God has in mind for you and for me.
“For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (Deuteronomy 7:6, TEV)
Last Friday I briefly joined a crew of former youth from Canterbury who reunited to do a mission project—working together like they had done in the youth group years before. The passion for serving others was obvious and their love for each other was strong. Some of the counselors who had worked with them in years past were right by their side—more as colleagues now than leaders—for these young people have grown into young adults and are capable of so much more. It was beautiful to see these young adults with a passion for helping others.
Sunday morning following our 10:30 worship services, I joined a swarm of people who gathered in Canterbury Hall to pack 3,000 Little Brown Bags to be distributed to children in the Birmingham City Schools who would miss out on the school lunches over the Thanksgiving holidays. The buzz and energy in the room was a vibrant blend of laughter and excited conversation. There were a group of young helpers who were restocking the baskets from which the items were taken and placed in the Little Brown Bags. They were like a finely tuned machine as they weaved in and out of the lines of people packing bags to be sure there were plenty of supplies for those packing. It was beautiful to see children with a passion for helping others.
Canterbury UMC has a history of creating compassionate and generous people. We start them young! I am grateful for the culture of living out our commitment to Jesus Christ by serving others that is instilled from an early age in the lives of our children.
On Monday evening as we gathered for the “All Sons and Daughters” concert in the sanctuary, we had over 700 people from the community join us for an evening of worship and praise. There were a lot of people from Canterbury in the crowd. The remarkable thing to me was there were a lot of older members of the church who made a commitment to show up for this concert even though it “wasn’t their cup of tea.” Their presence spoke volumes about their willingness to support this church. I think these are the same people who have created a culture at Canterbury of serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. It was beautiful to see these members demonstrating their commitment to this congregation.
Canterbury is a church filled with beautiful people who are making the world a better place through love, service, and commitment. Thank you for being the church you are because you are making a difference in so many lives.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” (Hebrews 11:1-2, NRSV)
We are observing All Saints’ Day this Sunday. On this day, we remember those of our church family who have moved from the church temporal to the church eternal in the past year. All those Saints are still part of Canterbury, and their legacy of faith continues to shape and influence who we are today. Throughout the generations, these Saints were here to teach Sunday school, to serve as Youth Counselors, to sing in the choir, to sit on the Administrative Board or Church Council, or to volunteer in one of the missions of Canterbury. They gave of themselves in every way, and for their contributions we are grateful.
To help us mark this significant day, I invited our former pastor and current District Superintendent, Bill Morgan, to bring the message in Traditional Worship. It will be great to have Bill and Dianne back among us and to share in the remembrance of the Saints. Bill has been a valuable resource to me in my first sixteen months at Canterbury, and I am grateful for both his leadership and his friendship. I am looking forward to his words of grace and encouragement on this holy day.
As we remember those from our congregation who have died in the previous year, you may want to remember other significant friends or family members who have died who weren’t a part of this congregation. In our act of remembrance, feel free to whisper their names. There are people in all our lives who played a role we will want to remember as well. The Saints of God have positively shaped us, and we will offer our gratitude.
On another note, at 5:00 pm on Sunday evening, we’ll dedicate time in The Way Worship service for a time of prayer for our country. With the election on Tuesday, we will turn our hearts and minds towards God and allow the Holy Spirit to reassure us that our future is secure in Jesus Christ, no matter the outcome of the election. As God’s people, we are called to put our faith and trust in God, and in God alone. I hope to see you in the chapel.